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A place for all to learn

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Nestled quietly in the southeast corner of Henry County is the Kentucky State University Environmental Education Center, a 300-acre tract of wilderness exploration and research

By Cindy DiFazio

Staff writer/photographer

Indigo Buntings flit by and two fawns trail a doe into the woods through the roadside blooms of Periwinkle and Queen Anne’s Lace.

Those are just some of the fauna and flora that may greet newcomers on the road to Kentucky State University’s Environmental Education Center in southeastern Henry County.

Drive down two miles of gravel road off U.S. 421 at the 17-mile marker and there lies 300 acres of protected Kentucky wild lands.

“It is a somewhat windy, scary drive through a number of S-curves, but the EEC is worth it,” KSU Communications Specialist Molly Williamson said.

Upon entering the front gate, visitors are treated to an expansive butterfly garden donated by Shooting Star Nurseries out of Georgetown. “In spring it’s like a cloud of butterflies,” director Wes Stilwell said.

Stilwell is a degreed forester who recently obtained his master’s degree in aquatic science. He has steered the project’s progress for the past four years.

Originally owned by the Kentucky School for the Blind, the center has a mission statement that the center “will make every reasonable effort to provide access to all members of the Commonwealth while focusing on providing educational experiences that accommodate different learning abilities.”

As such, the center furnishes many amenities compliant with the American Disabilities Act. Braille text is included on the facility’s dedication plaque. “We try to honor (the Kentucky School for the Blind’s) hopes,” Stilwell said.

A variety of groups enjoy trips to the center. “Yesterday we had a group from Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital in Lexington,” he said. Cardinal Hill helps patients disabled by strokes, multiple sclerosis, brain and spinal cord injury to regain independence and health. The facility regularly utilizes the EEC.

Other regulars include veterans’ groups, boy scouts and girl scout troops, teachers, students and KSU summer program participants. So far this summer, the center has had more than 1,000 visitors.

The Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund supplied some funding, providing materials for a parking lot and a 1,500-foot paved handicapped accessible trail.

Wheelchair accessible wooden learning platforms jut out over five spring ponds where visitors observe diverse still water creatures. “They’ll see salamanders, walking sticks and frogs,” he said.

Stilwell built one platform that is close to the trailhead and admits he is better at growing trees than working with lumber.  “I grow trees. When it comes to taking them apart and putting the pieces back together, well, I’m not a carpenter,” he said. “Ninety percent of this deck was made by chainsaw.”

A 1.6-acre pond and its environs offer another level of recreational and educational opportunities. A large bird blind affords up-close views of wildlife by the pond.

Visitors can fish, picnic and explore the area. Lucky visitors may even spot the families of three pair of wood ducks or a pair of red-tailed hawks on the far side of the water.

“We throw out seed for them, they really like the sunflower variety” Stilwell said. “If you sit in there quiet, you can even see mice jumping.”

Pervious concrete walkways — donated by the Kentucky Readymix Association — that look like natural pebbles provide comfortable access to picnic tables and the pond’s deck area for wheelchair visitors.

“It’s a green alternative to a block of concrete,” he said, “and provides better traction for wheelchairs.”

The deck and ramp were provided by Home Depot. “Home Depot gave us a giant chunk of money,” he said. “Just one piece of this deck board costs twenty-plus.”

Eagle Scout Devin Hayes began building a platform uphill from the largest pond in late 2005 as his Eagle Scout project. Over time the project grew.

Hayes has worked on the platform and ramp with help from members of Boy Scout Troop 644 as well as his father and brother, Richard and Nathan. “That’s a real solid group of individuals,” Stilwell said. “They’re coming through.”

The bottom lands, accessible only by foot or utility vehicle, are wilder than the mostly manicured grounds above.  Blackberry bushes tangle with shoulder high fields of wildflowers. A pair of wild turkeys shambled comically through the grass startled by Stilwell’s utility vehicle engine.

Here, Stilwell scattered seed left over from the planting of the butterfly garden in this remote area of the grounds where Six Mile Creek rambles. “I came down to the bottom and realized I already have a butterfly garden down there,” he said.

The creek offers its own set of learning opportunities.

Williamson said Frankfort’s Capital Day School waded in the stream to study its functions. “They studied the organisms living in the stream to see the diversity of the water and what that says about pollution in the area,” she said.

Other groups have built ghost shrimp, lizard, newt and frog biospheres and had fun catching and releasing the native Kentucky wildlife.

Henry County teachers also have brought classes to the facility. “Teachers come out to the site to learn about stream ecology and to get, and later give, their students hands-on experience with environmental lessons,” Williamson said.

Stilwell crushed a handful of leaves from a Sassafras tree, inhaled deeply and passed them over. “What do these smell like,” he asked.

He was disappointed by the answer — lemons.

Stilwell explained that Sassafras puts the root in root beer and that is the smell he discerns. “My daughter and I have been in a long argument,” he said. Evidently, Brooke, 11, also said it smells like lemons.

The EEC is also home to research on native plants and animals.

“There is a willow species of special concern by the pond,” he said. “I kept looking for it by the creek, but found it when I was weed-eating by the pond.” The designation “special concern” refers to the willow’s status on the endangered species list.

Protection also extends to the butterflies. “You have to make sure there is a butterfly path throughout whatever tract you’re managing,” he said.

Stilwell said a “timber cruise” revealed that the land contains a natural cross-section of butterfly trees. A timber cruise is a process used to access and catalogue a section of forest.

Other work includes research on leaf beetles and certain kinds of bats.

Stilwell said a University of Kentucky wildlife management class recently spent a night at the facility in an attempt to capture bat specimens.

He said they only captured one, and that was only by hilarious happenstance.

A group of students was searching the creek bank when a bat fell out of a tree landing on a female student’s shoulder. “The girl ran screaming,” he said. Stilwell and his daughter took up the chase wielding little nets. They delivered the little bat to the class for further study.

Stilwell said there is no such thing as a bad day at the EEC.

“Even if you just sit among the cattails there’s always something to see,” he said, “preying mantis, aphids, something.”

E-mail us about this article at news@hclocal.com.